BENTON HARBOR — Rocco Mediate still remembers fondly the drive in his father Tony’s Cadillac down Pokagon Highway away from Hampshire Country Club near Dowagiac as if it was yesterday.
Nearly 39 years ago – Aug. 1, 1983, to be exact – then 20-year-old Rocco and his dad, a barber in Greensburg, Pa. were trying to get to Point O’Woods Golf & Country Club where Rocco, who had shot 74 in the morning at Hampshire, could present his invitation card for a late-afternoon practice round before the 81st Western Amateur golf championship.
Pokagon Highway, a two-lane country road, went past pig farms immediately across the street from Hampshire, and the Mediates eventually made their way to M-140 which took them north to Territorial Road where they went west through the little village of Millburg to Roslin Road and Point O’Woods, designed by the renowned late golf architect Robert Trent Jones Sr.
Mediate, who played college golf at Florida Southern, had a tight grip on the invitation card that day, and his dad’s Cadillac couldn’t get them to the Point quick enough.
“The ride was unreal,” Mediate said Monday afternoon at the Jack Nicklaus-design, Harbor Shores, where he, the 2016 champion, and 155 other senior professionals will tee off Thursday in the KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship.
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The 6-foot-1 Mediate made the 36-hole cut, assuring himself a spot in the 1984 Western Amateur during which he shot 279 for three days of stroke play to qualify for the Sweet Sixteen and match play. Mediate then knocked off Niles 31-year-old Doug Fischesser, a former U.S. Amateur runner-up, 1 up in Saturday’s first round and stroke-play medalist Scott Verplank (270) on the 19th hole in the afternoon quarterfinals. On Sunday, Mediate beat Fred Wadsworth 1 up in the morning semifinals to set up an afternoon championship showdown with North Carolina Tar Heel John Inman.
The two golfers, dressed in plus fours (knickers), played an entertaining match before more than 6,000 Michiana golf fans (“a zillion fans,” he remembers) before Inman prevailed 3-and-2. Mediate, with oodles of confidence, returned to Florida Southern where he and teammate Lee Janzen, later a two-time U.S. Open champion, led the school to the NCAA Division II championship before Mediate turned pro and earned his card.
“Playing in the Western Amateur gave me hope of possibly becoming a professional,” Mediate said. “I never thought I’d be out here 37 years. I never learned more about playing tournament golf than I did at the Western.”
The popular Mediate has earned more than $22.5 million dollars as a professional and won six events on the regular tour – the first in 1991 at Doral and the last the Frys.com Open in 2010 – before joining in 2013 the 50-and-older crowd, the PGA Tour Champions on which he has won four times, including the 2016 Senior PGA at Harbor Shores where he opened with a nine-under 62 and led from start to finish for a 19-under 265 total which was three strokes ahead of his good friend, Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie.
“It (the victory) was unexpected probably from everybody including myself,” Mediate chuckled. “It meant a lot before it is a major championship, and it felt like one. I had the lead pretty much every day, and I’m playing with Colin, who is so good and you know he’s coming at you.
“And then there were a lot of runs on Sunday,” Mediate continued. “Bernhard (Langer) made a run, everyone made a run, and I was hanging in there and made a few good putts and hit a bunch of good shots.”
Mediate likes the Nicklaus design and is surprised that his 19-under score was so low (it was matched two years later by Paul Broadhurst when the Senior PGA returned).
“This golf course is not easy,” Mediate said. “If you put it in the right spots, you can shoot scores here. This is a very quadrant, second-shot golf course. If you’re in the wrong place, ooh, boy. My short game that week was ridiculous, and I putted great. Holing that bunker shot at (the par-3) 17 iced it for me. It put me up three shots. I tried to hit it into the water (at 18), but I put it in the bunker (and won).”
The victory is easily the biggest moment of Mediate’s professional career, which has survived severe back injuries that caused him to use a long putter early (he won Doral in 1991 with one) before surgery finally allowed Mediate to putt conventionally. The highlight of Mediate’s PGA Tour career may not have been any of his victories – he battled Tiger Woods for the 2008 U.S. Open championship into a playoff that ended with Woods winning on the 19th hole in sudden death at Torrey Pines, one of the courses Woods played as a youngster.
But Rocco Mediate will tell you that his career really started almost four decades ago after he qualified at Hampshire and he and his father took a long and winding road to Point O’Woods for his first Western Amateur.
“I remember driving through Niles, all the signs,” he said. “I remember going to the Point a few years ago. It’s still awesome.”
As is Rocco Mediate.
82nd KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship
When: Thursday, May 26 through Sunday, May 29 (practice round Wednesday, May 25)
Where: Harbor Shores Golf Club, Benton Harbor (Par 71, 6,734 yards designed by Jack Nicklaus)
Defending champion: Alex Cejka, Germany
Past champions at Harbor Shores: Roger Chapman, 2012; Colin Montgomerie, 2014; Rocco Mediate, 2016; Paul Broadhurst, 2018
Information and tickets: srpgachampionship.com
TV: Golf Channel, Thursday and Friday; NBC Sports, Saturday; Golf Channel and NBC Sports Sunday.